"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
On 7th July 1921 — one hundred years ago today — Professor Ann Louise McIlroy gave a talk at the Medico-Legal Society, 11 Chandos Street, London. She spoke on Some factors in the Control of the Birth Rate to an audience that included Lord Justice Atkins, Earl Russell, G.B. Shaw and Dr. Halliday Sutherland. In the discussion that followed, Earl Russell, Dr. Sutherland, G.B. Shaw commented and then McIlroy made some concluding remarks. When Dr. Sutherland quoted her in his 1922 book Birth Control: A Statement of Christian Doctrine Against the Neo-Malthusians, her words were placed at the heart of a bitter legal dispute and she was cross-examined on them in the High Court in 1923.
McIlroy was a distinguished speaker: she was the first woman to be awarded a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) and the first woman professor of gynecology at London University. She also worked at the Royal Free Hospital for Women where saw patients free-of-charge. In her lifetime, she received many honours, including the Croix de Guerre in 1916 and was appointed an O.B.E. in 1920. Her obituary in the British Medical Journal on 17th February 1968 included this assessment:
Dame Louise had a charming personality with many true Irish characteristics, which could at times be irritating to the more matter-of-fact English. She was a good, easy speaker, and enjoyed nothing better than a wordy battle with her male colleagues, in which no quarter was given on either side. She could not bear the thought that her opinion would be passed unopposed just because she was a woman. She had the power of imparting to her assistants and the students her own wealth of knowledge, her great sense of responsibility, her industry, and her kindness. She was a most hospitable and amusing hostess, and many will remember the parties at her cottage in Buckinghamshire which she loved so much. Among other achievements Dame Louise was one of the first to insist on an anaesthetic in every maternity case, to do work on the resuscitation of the newborn, and, above all, to teach her students to avoid “meddlesome midwifery.”Source: “Obituary of Louise McIlroy, D.B.E., L.L.D., D.SC., M.D., F.R.C.P., F.R.C.O.G.” in the British Medical Journal, 17th February 1968
If you read the full obituary, you will see that this a sample of a life well lived.
To mark this centenary, I have published a transcript of the remarks she made following discussion of her paper and my aim is to put the remarks that were at the centre of the Stopes v Sutherland libel trial of 1923 into context. The reader should note that the remarks were made at the Medico-legal Society which was founded in 1901 to promote Medico-legal knowledge in all its aspects. Further, when transcribing her words, which had been recorded and typed by a stenographer, I initially intended to be faithful to the text warts and all. I changed my approach when it became apparent that I was including many obvious typographical errors (for example, “you boy’s and girl’s” instead of “young boy’s and girl’s” and “cervex” instead of “cervix”), so on many occasions I have changed the original text where I thought doing so would better convey the intended meaning.
There was too short a time for reading my paper. If I had read my original paper you would not have got home by midnight. I had to cut it down six times. The whole question must be considered by the medical profession because we have absolutely no guide in the matter. I have myself have no guide. I wanted several points of guidance and everybody who has discussed the question has felt that need, and that it must be taken up by the medical profession and put on the proper basis. Dr. Routh mentioned the attitude of the College of Physicians. I have arrived at the conclusion that in cases of criminal abortion you should get rid of the patient as soon as you can, and that is practically the advice that is given by the profession. You are very lucky if you have nothing to do with a case but, if you do shift her on to another member of the profession. I do not agree with the suggestion that the object is to get fodder for cannon. I think that the whole welfare of the nation, of the Empire depends on the sanity of the White race. I meant that contraceptives should only be used on the advice of the medical profession. I did not take up the economic question. But, on the question of taxation and the allowance to mothers, there is no allowance. The woman is penalised when she marries. She has to add her income to her husbands. If we could get that removed from the income tax it would facilitate women’s earnings. It is the better conducted classes who make the greatest use of contraceptive methods. They want to give one boy a public school education, and if there are 4 or 5 boys they could only give them an elementary education. But you can now ensure a boy’s or a girl’s situation, and the government give a rebate. That system might be extended to other classes of the community. Then there is the question of motherhood endowment, but but we do not want to burden the State with anymore taxation. But there are schemes for insurance is in connection with motherhood, and they should be enlarged, so that the mother might be able to give up her work during the last two months of pregnancy, and there should be a system of looking after the early lactation of children. As to contraceptives being harmful. I did not go into that question. The practice would ruin the you[ng] men and women of any nation. I have had no experience of any harmful result of the use from the use of quinine. The most harmful method of which I have had experience is the use of the pessary. It does not remain in place. It can pass back natural discharges. In sexual intercourse there is no proof that the spermatorroea has some physiological beneficial effect on the woman, and if you put a cap over the walls of the vagina maybe threatened. We are not decided whether it is also it is so or not. In my opinion it is the cervix which is absorbed and flooded, not the vagina. The Church is out of date. The Church ought not only to show the way to heaven, but to show that we should live a proper and moral and clean life. One has only to live in Ireland to see the happiness of the peasants there in their large families, and they have very little to live on. In Eastern Europe the people are very prolific and their morality is high. Especially in Bulgaria and Serbia, where 3 acres of ground is given to each peasant. There is no question of contraceptives being used in these countries. And the peasants are the happiest I have ever lived amongst. There are large families, and every member is an athlete. I have known a case of a boy of 21 marrying a woman of 40. No objection was made, because she was a good worker and could help to till the land. This was an example of the peasantry living under good conditions with large families, making for the good of the State. Last year I spent some time in Constantinople and there was an enormous influx of the better class Russians. I came into contact with them from the direct medical point of view. There was a great prevalence of Gonorrhoea amongst the women. The Russian doctors advised contraceptive methods. There were expensive and could not be obtained, because the poor things had no money. Abortion was carried out everywhere by the Russians. There were an enormous number of Russian peasants who were on the same lines as the Sevian and Bulgarian peasants and were most prolific. The Russian upper classes are decadent. They were utterly hopeless, they did not want children, they thought of their little pet dogs very much more than of children, and some of them saved their little pet dogs and let the children go. The sexual instinct is given to everyone possibly for the propagation of our species and if you interfere with it you must give some outlet to our reproductive knowledge in other directions. If you are going to do great work in the world your sexual side must be in abeyance. I thoroughly agree that there should be separate bedrooms. It is difficult to be moral under some conditions which at present exist. In India, the people are very prolific and they are perfectly moral, for the reason that the women are not stimulated as is the case in some countries. They are dressed properly and kept away from the public eye. You cannot say anything bad enough about the Turk — he is a barbarian, but he is one of the most moral men, and the women are much poorer than any in London. I think that modesty should not be a question of religion but of race preservation. There are some who say the medical profession have no right to interfere with family life. Why should we have these men and women going about trying to introduce people to use contraceptive methods? I have not the least objection to the sale of these contraceptives, but they ought to be sold openly, by chemists of repute, not confined to the rubber goods trade and looked upon as only to be used for sexual purposes. If they are useful they ought to be procurable if they are harmful they ought to be swept away.
Finally, before I researched the book Exterminating Poverty, I had not realised how accomplished Professor McIlroy was. In the biographies of Dr. Marie Stopes, her achievements were downplayed, and then some, and then some more! Some of Stopes’ biographers denigrate McIlroy as a hypocrite, some even after the false story was debunked in 1998 (alternative link here). I am unable to say why individual biographers do this, though I do suspect that, in some cases at least, it was because McIlroy testified for Dr. Halliday Sutherland during the Stopes v Sutherland libel trial, and because her testimony was very damaging to Stopes’ case. I hope that by drawing attention to McIlroy that her legacy becomes more widely known.